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: A Buddhist Sculpture of the Wei Dynasty


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
An early Chinese Buddhist sculpture lately installed in the Oriental galleries presents a new challenge to members who are endeavoring to broaden their appreciation of Chinese art. In comparison with the ritual bronzes and the archaic jades in the Alfred F. Pillsbury collection appreciation of it should be a comparatively simple matter. Nevertheless, for those who are inclined to regard with impatience any art that lies outside the realm of their experience or immediate interest, a conscious effort toward acceptance and understanding will have to be made. It will have to be made because this work of art states a thought in an unfamiliar language in a foreign idiom. The language is Buddhism and the idiom is Chinese.This example of Chinese sculpture, whose impact will be retarded but potent, is a dark grey limestone figure of a Bodhisattva from the famous sixth century series cave temples at Lung Mên in Honan. It is a mere scrap from those mighty monuments—it measures only some eighteen inches in height—but it conveys with extraordinary clarity the spirit that motivated Chinese sculptors in carving figures which were to symbolize to the devout the abstract ideal of the Buddhist religion. It has all the characteristics which combine to create such a distinctive picture in the mind when one thinks of Wei sculpture: the flat, elongated body, the delicate line of the silhouette, the narrow head on a long neck, the face with firmly modelled nose and chin, the eyebrows falling to the lines of the nose over half-closed eyes, and the marvelously controlled but vibrant draperies flaring out at the feet. The expression of the face, with its ghostly smile and mystic gaze, is remote and somewhat frigidly tender. Together with the fine-drawn, nervous line of the draperies it lends the figure a spirituality and an upsurging quality that has nowhere been more perfectly expressed than in sculptures of the Wei period.These things are so and yet, unless one feels them for himself and understands how they came to be, the sculpture will remain only a distorted figure which does not at all correspond to one's conception of a human figure. He will brush it aside as a poor anatomical representation of man. In arriving at an understanding of the sculpture one might profitably apply the classic rules of crime detection: what, where, when, how, why, and by whom? Here, however, the sequence of the problem might be changed to what, why, how, where, when, and by whom.The figure represents a Bodhisattva, one of those beings who have achieved spiritual enlightenment but who have renounced Nirvana in order to minister to suffering humanity. Bodhisattvas are saints. They were the product of Mahayana Buddhism, which departed from the original austere creed of the Hinayana Buddhists in believing that man should not have to struggle unaided for salvation, but might count upon the help of wiser beings.This particular Bodhisattva is identified as Avalokitesvara because of the figure of the seated Buddha in his headdress. Were it not for this distinguishing mark he might be Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come, inasmuch as Maitreya was often shown seated with the legs crossed at the ankles, especially in sculptures of the early Wei period. Still a Bodhisattva, Maitreya is destined to follow the present Buddha, Sakyamuni, as the seventh Buddha. Avalokitesvara, on the other hand, has renounced Nirvana forever. He was one of the most popular of all Buddhist deities in China, and eventually became merged with the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. He is here shown seated, his legs crossed at the ankles, and his right hand raised in the abhaya mudra (do not fear). The left hand, as often happens in seated figures, rests on the thigh with the elbow held away from the body. The costume is composed of a skirt pleated at the waist and falling to the ankles over well-defined legs. The upper part of the body is partially concealed by a brief garment with short pointed sleeves and narrow scarf-ends which cross in an X-like arrangement through a round buckle below the waist. A more elaborate rendering of this costume, as well as a softening and rounding of the whole conception, may be observed in the figures of two standing Bodhisattvas of the Sui dynasty presented to the Institute by Mr. and Mrs. Augustus L. Searle in 1942.The why of this Buddhist sculpture presents, to the Western mind, a difficult problem. The first thing to realize is that it is not meant to represent an actual person. It is a vehicle for the expression of an idea, an image in the sculptor's mind, and it was created for the purpose of putting the spirit of the worshipper in tune with the ideal it represents. Therefore, if one can rid himself of the thought that this is supposed to represent a human figure and reach the idea behind the figure, he will have achieved an understanding of this particular work of art. It is a symbol of the Buddhist ideal—a symbol of the belief that release from the pain of existence can only be achieved through release from evil and complete detachment from earthly desires and passion. Until he has freed himself from desire, man will be repeatedly born to suffering. Only by denial can he hope to attain Nirvana, where his entity will be lost in the greater whole.This is a bleak outlook, but through the help of the Bodhisattva Nirvana becomes more than a vague dream. It becomes a possibility, and it is the spirit of sympathy and compassion by which man is aided in his striving that the sculptor has conveyed in this figure of Avalokitesvara. If it seems aloof and remote it is because Wei sculptors so viewed their deities. As time went on those deities were to become more human. In so doing they became also more familiar and endearing, but they lost the ethereal beauty they possessed during the early period of Wei sculpture in China.The how of the figure derived from India. Like those in cave temples of the birthplace of Buddhism, it was carved out of living rock. It was done with a chisel, slowly and painstakingly because the stone was a fine, hard-grained limestone, and the form may have emanated from the manuscripts by which many think Buddhist iconography was brought from India to China. The crisp, linear quality of the design lends foundation to this belief. On the other hand, the Han artists were great masters of line and so were the late Chous who preceded them. The Chinese have always been acutely conscious of the expressiveness and beauty of linear rhythm, and it may be that the Wei artists had simply absorbed this tradition and continued it in the exciting manner so closely associated with Wei sculptural art. Since the figure was designed to occupy a secondary altar niche in one of the cave temples, it is thin and flat and finished only on the front surface which stood out in relief against the background.The where of the figure has not been precisely determined. It came from the Lung Mên cave temples outside the Wei capital of Lo-yang in Honan, but the exact cave has not been ascertained. In pose and general treatment it corresponds closely to a Maitreya, or Buddha, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art which Alan Priest believes to be "probably from Ku Yang Tung (Cave XXI)." The Metropolitan's figure, published by Mr. Priest in Chinese Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is perhaps a little earlier. The treatment of the draperies is simpler and the effect in general quieter than in the Institute's figure. The when of the Institute's sculpture may be given as the first half, and possibly as the first quarter, of the sixth century.The figure is a product of the Wei dynasty. But who were the Weis? They were one of the Tartar tribes, the T'o-pa Tartars, who descended on Northern China during the period of chaos that followed the downfall of the Han dynasty. At some time during the fourth century they swept into Shansi and in 386 they assumed sovereign power over North China, establishing a dynasty to which they gave the name Wei. It was the Wei emperors who popularized Buddhism in China, for while Buddhism is thought to have been introduced into the country in the first or second century, it was not until the Wei emperors made it their state religion that it took hold. Under the impetus of the vigorous and full-blooded people who sponsored it, it became a dynamic force, and the art by which it was propagated flowered into a distinctive and beautiful thing to which the Wei spirit, mingled with that of the native Chinese, gave a highly individual character. That character is strongly evident in this small figure of a Bodhisattva, and he who seeks to understand it will find his efforts repaid a hundredfold.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Limestone figure of a Bodhisattva from Lung Mên. Chinese, VI century. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A Buddhist Sculpture of the Wei Dynasty," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 35, no. 1 (January, 1946): 2-4.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009